How does a new product go through the prototyping process?

Prototypes are models of new products that can be useful for visualizing what the final product will be like. See more pictures of kitchen appliances.
Photo Courtesy of 3-D Systems

New products pop up on store shelves every day, but did you ever wonder what went into getting the latest and greatest slotted into place? Chances are there was a lengthy product evolution before you rested your gaze on it. Some of the major checkpoints a product must pass through on its way to hitting the market are the design phase, the prototyping phase and the production phase.

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After someone has a hot idea for a new product, the next thing he or she needs to do is determine all the details. The more comprehensive this design stage is, the better. Some good questions to ask include:

  • What are the product's attributes and characteristics?
  • What will the product offer that others on the market don't?
  • What is its function or purpose?
  • Does any new technology need to be invented to manufacture the product?
  • What is the product's lifespan?
  • How and where will it be manufactured, packaged, marketed and sold?
  • How much will manufacturing cost, and how much will people be willing to pay for the product?
  • Are there any issues with the product concerning government regulations, safety and environmental issues, patent infringements, or other potential hang-ups?

If the answers to these questions give you the green light, you're probably ready to begin thinking about building a prototype. Different types of prototypes can be helpful at different stages of the product development process. For example, when you first get going, a drawing could suffice for your design needs. After a while though, you may be ready for a simple prototype to use as a visual aid. But it doesn't need to be full-sized or able to stand up to rigorous operations and testing. You might also want more detailed physical prototypes of specific portions of your product -- maybe a complicated mechanical gear system, for example. You probably wouldn't need to prototype an entire bicycle just to take a closer look at how smoothly a new chain drive system operates.

For a time, you might have to bounce back and forth between tweaking design plans and rough prototyping if you realize your product still has some issues. As the process moves along, however, you may want a prototype that's a more exact imitation of what your final product will be. This is when those final design questions can be settled and everything tested, fine-tuned and perfected.

Now that we've had a look at what basic early design and prototyping can encompass, let's take our product a step further and check out how the pros get their hands on some pretty hardcore prototypes.


Prototype Design

Once you have a prototype designed, wouldn't it be great if you could print it out as easily as the driving directions for your next vacation. With 3-D printers, that's totally a possibility. Plug in the CAD data and you're good to go.
Photo Courtesy of 3-D Systems

After you've got the basic questions answered and you've worked out all the obvious kinks, serious prototyping can begin in earnest. Designing prototypes that are more advanced usually involves using 3-D CAD (computer-aided design) software to create a 3-D map of the product. If you're looking to bring a product into actual production, using CAD software is probably the way you want to go so you can carefully verify the functionality of your design. It's also a useful way for transferring product specs clearly and concisely to whomever is conducting the actual manufacturing.

With CAD software you can do lots of different things. Designs can be made in both 2-D and 3-D, and while viewing and tweaking your design specifications you can easily switch between the two views. Does your product have lots of parts? Each part can be designed individually and added to the overall product assembly one at a time. Every time you make an adjustment to any particular part of your product, not only will it alter the other dimension's specs accordingly, it'll also automatically integrate that change into the overall prototype design. Realistic images can be detailed with captions, close-ups and side views. You can try the look of different materials like chrome, steel or wood in matte finish, gloss finish, textured or brushed -- the sky's the limit. Many other actions that are commonly performed while designing a product are also automated in the software's extensive features. Useful too, CAD software commonly allows designers to see all the parts in motion, simulating how they will operate -- or fail to operate -- when built and assembled.


Once a set of 3-D CAD plans are complete, the next step in the prototyping process frequently involves making use of some special technology that's becoming increasingly popular among innovators, both for its speed and its accuracy. On the next page, we'll take a closer look at these machines and see how they could affect a product's pass through the prototyping process.

Prototype Development

3-D Systems' Sinterstation Pro SLS System performs selective laser sintering, one of the additive manufacturing methods described below.
Photo Courtesy of 3-D Systems

There's a bountiful variety of methods that can now be used to take your product from the blueprints and into your hands. Providing you aren't planning on time-consuming methods like building the product from scratch, you'll probably be turning to the world of rapid prototyping for a solution.

Rapid prototyping first emerged in the late 1980s in the form of stereolithography. The word might be a mouthful, but the idea is ingeniously simple. What isn't so simple is determining the exact name for this group of technologies. Rapid prototyping is actually just one category in a broader range of applications. Machines that can churn out 3-D models of new design concepts also have a number of other uses. These might include creating multiple models of a product for market testing and refinement, as well as for custom or short run production. Because of the diversity of technology, products and uses of those products, there's no single overarching terminology structure.


Examine the field carefully, though, and we see what all these technologies have in common is they create something by adding substrate, not taking it away. So a basic general term could be additive fabrication. Beyond its earliest manifestation as stereolithography, other terms used over the years include solid freeform fabrication, automated fabrication, rapid technologies, layered manufacturing, digital fabrication, 3-D printing -- it's quite a list, and there are even more candidates out there.

Despite the variations in name, what these machines all have in common is they join extremely fine layers of material onto each 3-D creation, layer by layer, until they have a finished prototype ready to go. The two key components of this system are the substrate that forms the layers and the method that's used to make them stick to together.

Some fields of additive fabrication include:

  • Stereolithography: A laser beam makes a patterned pass over the surface of a vat of liquid photopolymer resin. The resin hardens as the laser hits and the object is lowered slightly for the laser, usually UV, to make another pass.
  • Selective Laser Sintering: This system also makes use of a laser, but works by melting layers of thermoplastic powder and other materials like polymers.
  • Laminated Object Manufacturing: In this method, sheets of material are rolled into range, cut in the desired shape with lasers and adhered to the layer below.
  • 3-D Printing: An inkjet head applies liquid adhesive to layers of powder.
  • Electron Beam Melting: This method can make and repair dense metal parts by using an electron beam (more powerful than a laser) to melt layers of metal powder like steel, titanium and cobalt chrome parts.
  • Fused Deposition Modeling: Strands of plastic filaments or pellets are warmed while passing through a nozzle and melted into place, where they harden and bond.

Depending on the procedure used, support may be necessary for overhangs or undercuts in a part's design. If needed, this can be accomplished either by manual design or by automatic technique, and any supporting structures are usually brushed, dissolved or melted away afterwards. Other postproduction steps may include curing (or baking) a prototype with intense light and applying a finish or a hardener.

Despite the benefits of rapid prototyping, there are some drawbacks. While not taking weeks and months to build a prototype, it does still take a substantial amount of time for all those little layers to be laid down. Waiting hours, even a few days, for prototypes is the norm. The process and equipment can also be very expensive, with larger models costing several hundred thousand dollars. Many smaller and more affordable machines are available, however, and some companies charge hourly to prototype specs submitted by designers.

Now that we've got our prototype, what are we supposed to do with it?


Prototype Testing

Prototypes like this drill casing are good for testing for design flaws.
Photo Courtesy of 3-D Systems

So what is it about prototypes that make them so critical to product development? Since prototypes are by definition the first of their kind, they are used in product design for testing, testing and more testing. Let's take a minute to find out how testing a prototype generally works and the benefits of taking the time to do this.

The biggest benefit is probably to the bottom line. Prototypes can be tested for aspects like design flaws and ease of use, two things that are critical if your product is going to be a success. You need to make sure everything works the way it should -- and that your customers can figure out how to make it work, too.


One of the reasons for this is that time is a huge factor in product development. One designer's great idea could also be cooking in the head of a competitor the very same moment. Having the first product to hit the market has a number of benefits -- as long as it's a good product. Consumers will pay more for it, they'll develop stronger brand loyalties for it and you'll make a lot more money. This is another way rapid prototyping can be a huge boost: the time it saves in the prototyping process can really jumpstart your product development timeline.

One other thing to keep in mind about prototypes is that they can also be useful if you want to start pitching your idea to investors, upper level management and other interested parties before you have a finished product. Having an actual functioning prototype in hand can be a lot more persuasive than something on a piece of paper.

Safety testing is important as well. You want to make sure the product isn't inherently dangerous or dangerous if misused. If there is any risk associated with the product, you must determine how high the odds are and how serious the outcome would be. Can the risk be avoided or diminished? What warnings will you need to label the product with? Do the warnings and instructions need to be accessible to users of various skill levels and languages? This is all information you can learn by studying your prototype, your business plan and the market. Before your product heads for the assembly line, it's crucial to know everything is going to go off without a hitch. If you are in the United States, it's important to visit the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site for any applicable guidelines and regulations. If you're not in the United States, don't worry -- you probably have something similar where you live that shouldn't be too hard to find.

Once the prototype has proven itself, it's off to the assembly line for production. Check out the next page for lots more links -- like ones to helpful pages about legally protecting your new product.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links


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